American Politics are Hard to Explain

June 17, 2020 | By eric.terzuolo | Filed in: Diplomacy.

Europeans often have a hard time understanding American politics. So do a lot of Americans, for that matter. US diplomats are now having an especially hard time advocating for American values. But explaining why we do things has usually been tricky.

History, law, and institutions all make American politics hard to explain. A few things to think about.

1) International publics often see the US as a young country, but we are actually an old democracy.

Same Constitution since 1789. (France is currently on its 5th Republic.) Very hard to amend the Constitution. Stability is nice, but the document can seem out of date. (Think Electoral College.)

2) The Founders put a lot of faith in the wisdom of future generations. (Too much?)

They kept the Constitution short, easy to read. (7 articles; Italy’s has 139.) No long detailed European-style lists of rights/privileges or of prohibitions.

3) The Constitution is a contract, the product of “We the people.” Also a deal among states to meet needs they had identified.

No “State” with a capital “S” here. (Think Louis XIV.) Politics, government, law, but not an abstract State with interests of its own.

4) US-style federalism means real powers for the states and for municipalities.

Not talking about central government throwing some crumbs of autonomy to the states (“devolution”).

5) US presidency has strong powers, but is also “weak,” subject to legislative and judicial controls.

The executive branch is not a creature of parliament, as is common in Europe. A president may not have a majority in the legislature.

6) US political parties differ from the traditional European models.

Less of a command structure. More autonomy for individual legislators. But ideological homogeneity has increased, esp. in Republican ranks.

Just some reasons here why American politics can be hard to explain. Even to citizens of other mature, but different, democracies. Viewing American politics through a European lens, or European politics through an American lens, can cause misunderstandings.

For a more detailed discussion, see video of June 11 Guarini Institute for Public Affairs panel at

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3 comments on “American Politics are Hard to Explain

  1. John Evans says:

    Excellent, Eric! I wish I had had these points in mind years ago, especially the one about the State (never mind the deep state). You are hitting your stride. Bravo!

  2. Gerald Mark Stewart says:

    I disagree about the Electoral College but think your points are well taken.
    I find so few people have read the Federalist Papers the the intent and the definition of the Constitution is forgotten by Americans…

    • The Electoral College was well suited to the United States of the late 18th century. Arguably less ideally suited to very different United States of the 21st century. But I don’t believe in wasting time and effort to try to change the system. States small in size and/or population, whether Red or Blue, certainly won’t want to give up the clout and attention the Electoral College system gives them.

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